|A New Emphasis on Mental Health for Corrections Professionals|
|By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Kaplan University|
Much ink has been spilled describing, studying, analyzing, and in some cases simply bemoaning the mental health issues facing the incarcerated, as well as the gaps in community-level mental health resources that leave jail as the default option for the mentally ill, in particular those who are homeless. Less effort and attention has been spared, however, regarding the mental health challenges that face corrections professionals. That, fortunately, is beginning to change.
On May 17, 2017, the U.S. Senate referred Senate Bill 867, known by the short title “Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017,”to the House Judiciary Committee, where it remains under consideration pending referral to the House floor for a vote. The bill, introduced by Sen. Joseph Donnelly (D-Indiana) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), has five main components:
CCPOA governmental affairs director Stephen Walker noted in an interview that the association’s 2013 suicide rate was 19.4 per 100,000, compared to 12.6 per 100,000 in the U.S. population. Perhaps surprisingly, the federal government does not track deaths by suicide among law enforcement officers, and even the aforementioned Senate bill does not require it, although officials of the Fraternal Order of Police asked that such a requirement be included. The bill’s sponsors indicated that pushing such mandates down to the state and local level would have been challenging and likely to delay or completely derail the bill’s passage.
The COHWP is slated to continue in 2020. The survey was the initial step; next will come facility-level focus groups and experiments to assess the value of various mental health programs, and ultimately follow-up surveys will ask participants about the value of programs in which they participated in order to identify the best long-term solutions. Not all the potential programs have even been identified at this point, although possibilities include peer support and stress management training.
On May 8, 2017, the National Institute of Justice closed the solicitation of grant funding applications for research in three aspects of safety, health, and wellness in the criminal justice system, including “the impact of acute and chronic stress on…law enforcement and corrections officers….” The acting director of the NIJ, Dr. Howard Spivak, noted in the announcement letter that the agency is “interested specifically in the use of physiological and neurological measures to identify the effect that frequent exposure to stress and traumatic events has on health and wellness of law enforcement and corrections officers…, especially as it relates to the identification, development, and treatment of stress-related disorders (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)).”
This emphasis on biological markers has the potential to one day make identification of mental health issues much more objective and has the potential to reveal warning signs even in those who have not reached out for help. From a cultural standpoint, corrections and law enforcement still often suffers from some of the same limitations seen in the U.S. military during the early years of the War on Terror, as PTSD and the psychological effects of traumatic brain injury began to manifest on a widespread basis. Mental health issues were viewed by many service members—especially leaders—as non-medical, and asking for counseling or other psychological help was seen as “weak,” discouraging many affected men and women from seeking help. If such conditions could be identified by a more traditional medical test, it might further reduce the stigma associated with them.
As the U.S. military’s experience has demonstrated, there is no short or easy path to addressing stress-related disorders in a population that deals with violence and danger on a daily basis. We can only hope that the various initiatives outlined above, and others like them, will carry us far down that road.
Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.
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